As parades roll and people hit the streets for Carnival revelry, street food blossoms everywhere.
When purple, green and gold deck the halls of New Orleans, the finer points of our culinary heritage are often pushed to the backburner. For days on end many people sustain themselves on little more than cold fried chicken, mangled, finger-printed finger sandwiches and whatever pickled garnishes they can rescue from their go-cups of bloody Marys. For some, it’s simply a matter of surrendering to the decadence of the season and hoping that Ash Wednesday arrives before vitamin deficiency sets in or the waistband bursts.
But to another way of thinking, eating around Carnival time taps some inherent and vital aspects of our local food heritage — namely, improvisation, self-sufficiency and the ability to wring a satisfying meal from whatever is on hand.
I think this shows up best in the food you can buy directly on the streets. I don’t mean from roving food trucks and I most emphatically do not mean the out-of-town vendors who descend for the season to sell funnel cake, corn dogs and Polish sausage, vendors with more connection to the carnival of the midway than the Carnival of Mardi Gras.
Rather, I’m talking about those local bootstrap entrepreneurs and guerilla fundraisers who materialize during the season, knowing they can cash in on crowds with quick, easy, often homemade food that we can devour while heading to the parade route. These people put on the equivalent of Mardi Gras bake sales, only with gumbo and barbecue and instead of cookies and cakes, though you do see some of those sweets out there, too.
The line-up of these homemade street eats is in constant flux, sometimes changing day-to-day as financial goals, supplies, parade schedules and individual ambitions adjust. That means it’s impossible to make specific recommendations for addresses to find such food. But just keep your eyes open around the parade routes, or better yet keep your nose on alert for the aroma of cooking food. I couldn’t tell you precisely where I’ve found good street meals during Carnival seasons past, but I remember some of those meals as clearly as yesterday’s lunch.
For instance, from a folding table at some St. Charles Avenue intersection, I’ve enjoyed red, meaty jambalaya scooped from a slow cooker and accompanied by a brownie bundled up in wax paper. I’ve enjoyed a link of hot boudin wrapped in foil and purchased from someone on Magazine Street pulling a Radio Flyer wagon with a cooler full of these Cajun sausages. And I’ve been able to shop around at a veritable, ad hoc food court of homemade options set up behind the iron fence line of shotgun homes under the oaks of Napoleon Avenue. On that night I eventually settled on a plate of red beans, served from the porch by a lady who promised the proceeds would help fund a school art program.
Most of this activity, is, of course, unlicensed, uninspected and unregulated. Maybe that’s off-putting to some, especially in this age of wariness and scrutiny in so many of our consumer decisions. But it’s fine with me. It’s Mardi Gras, after all, and if everything we experienced during this singular season had to be regulated and approved, well, it wouldn’t make for a very fat Tuesday would it?